My Early Life with Arabic
We were the descendants of Isaac. The Arabs, descendants of Ishmael, were therefore not only our neighbors but also our family members, our cousins.
The launch in 2015 of the online Arabic-Hebrew dictionary—a massive, fully searchable database complete with notes, examples, and expressions drawn from many historical layers of the Arabic language—capped many years of dedicated labor by Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic language and literature emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the essay below, adapted from remarks delivered on the 90th anniversary of the university’s Institute of Asian and African Studies, Milson reflects on the opening stages of his lifelong involvement with the language.
The attraction was evident from a very early age. In 1936, when I was about three, a scandalized neighbor informed my mother that her darling son had been overheard saying words that did not bear repeating. Evidently, during a quarrel with the neighbor’s son, I’d uttered phrases in colloquial Arabic containing, among others, the words for mother, father, and religion. Without going into further detail, suffice it to observe that, for the purpose of cursing, many Hebrew-speaking Israelis resort to certain Arabic formulations in which all three words figure prominently.
Nazis in Tinseltown
Spies, sympathizers—and the watchful Jewish operatives who thwarted their plans.
In the late 1930s, or perhaps it was as late as 1940, my father and uncle, the screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein, sought to join the American armed forces. The Army turned them away; it apparently considered their anti-fascism premature. That, at any rate, is family lore, and I have every reason to believe it. At that point, in the view of much of the government and the country at large, to be against Hitler was to be for Stalin; to be against fascism was to be for communism—by far the greater evil, if indeed Nazism and its ideals were considered evil at all. Add to this equation a third element, the Jews, for in much of the popular imagination the distinction between being an anti-fascist, a Communist, and a Jew did not exist. Even the horrors of World War II did not change public opinion; in one 1945 survey, two-thirds of respondents agreed with the proposition “Jews have too much power and influence in this country.”
Brooklyn, the Most Jewish Spot on Earth
A dozen years ago, I moved from a Park Slope brownstone to a rent-controlled apartment south of Kings Highway in Brooklyn. It turned out to be next door to the Ocean Avenue building where my grandmother, Shirley, had spent her first married years. “Tell me,” she demanded over the phone, her Brooklyn accent undimmed by 20 years in Florida, “is it one of those units with a sunken living room? Those were the hot ticket!”
It was indeed. And as I unpacked my Ikea sofa into that sunken living room—60 years after Shirley snared her own—my family’s Brooklyn story had come full circle.
He Fought Polar Bears And Nazis And Was Called ‘The Most Unique Jew Alive’
On December 20, 1934, the New York Jewish Daily Bulletin’s Michel Kraike published an article about one Peter Freuchen: “Eight feet tall, weighing close to 330 pounds, with a head like a grizzly bear’s and a thick, square red beard.”
Born in Denmark, Freuchen held a series of professions that, to modern ears, might sound unlikely: He was an Arctic explorer who traded goods with the Eskimos, a novelist who accidentally starred in a Hollywood adaptation of his book “Eskimo,” an amateur-surgeon-by-necessity — suffering from frostbite during his time with the Eskimos, he amputated several of his own toes before eventually having his leg amputated — and a onetime governor of a Greenland colony.
DNA and the Origin of the Jews
Is there a genetic marker for cohanim (priests)? Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from Khazars? Why is there such a close genetic connection between Samaritans and Jews, especially cohanim? A look at what genetic testing can tell us about Jews.
In premodern times, the question of where Jews come from had an obvious answer: The Bible tells the story of Israel’s origins beginning with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, moving on to Moses and the exodus from Egypt, and continuing on the conquest of Canaan, the judges, the monarchy, the exile, and so on. Modern scholars have come to challenge that narrative, however, just as scientists began to challenge the creation story in Genesis, looking beyond the biblical account for an explanation for how the Jews came to be.